A History of the Harvard-Yale Rivalry

A History of the Harvard-Yale Rivalry

The Harvard-Yale rivalry is the oldest—and one of the most storied—in intercollegiate athletics.   John Powers, from the Harvard class of 1970, shares some insights into this special relationship, which is founded on keen competition and mutual respect. -- Bob Scalise, The John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics

By John Powers '70

Their first sporting meeting was a summer diversion in New Hampshire in 1852 when Harvard's and Yale's crews raced before a fashionable crowd on Lake Winnipesaukee in what promoters called 'the marine melodrama of the century'. "None then thought of it as anything but a frolic without a sequel," Yale oarsman James Whiton later observed.

In the 163 years since America's oldest and third-oldest institutions competed in the nation's first intercollegiate athletic event they've met head to head more than 3,000 times in nearly 40 sports from baseball to women's rugby in what has become the world's most storied rivalry. Their heavyweight crews still compete in their classic four-mile pull on the Thames River in New London, where the training headquarters (Red Top and Gales Ferry) also date back to the 19th century. "The world championships is nothing compared to this," said Yale oarsman Steve Kiesling, who rowed for the US straight four boat. "The Boat Race is a whole lot more serious."

The football rivalry, which began in 1875 and was dubbed 'The Game' more than five decades ago, was featured in a Norman Rockwell painting as an American ritual, what former Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti called 'the last great 19th-century pageant left in the country.'

Harvard and Yale first met in baseball three years after the end of the Civil War and their games were a highlight of each school's Commencement Day, with alumni parading to the diamond. Their track meets began in 1891, their lacrosse matches in 1882 and their hockey games in 1900, when a black-tie assemblage watched the squads face off at St. Nicholas Rink in New York.

The Harvard-Yale rivalry even extends to the intramural level where their respective champions have met since 1935 with the Harkness Trophy (cast in the 1770s but misplaced since the 1970s) going to the school with the most victories.

Yet Harvard and Yale have been not only rivals but also partners against international opponents. Their combined track teams have faced Oxford and Cambridge in a biennial meet since 1899 under a unique format where only first place counts. Their tennis teams have competed against their Oxbridge counterparts since 1921. Their football captains have posed together for The Game program cover for more than half a century. "There's a sense of shared experience, a sense of bonding," said Vic Gatto, who captained Harvard's varsity in the famous 29-29 'victory' against Yale in 1968.

The two schools have similar academic missions, similar admissions standards, similar residential plans and similar ethical values. In 1970 after the NCAA controversially banned Yale from post-season competition for using an ineligible basketball player, Harvard's medalists at the national indoor track-and-field championships took the award stand wearing Yale shirts.

"They're an awful lot like our kids," former Yale football coach Carm Cozza once said. "A lot of them I had in my office, trying to convince them that the grass was greener here than it was in Cambridge."

Certain student-athletes have managed to acquire diplomas from both places. Former President George H.W. Bush, who played baseball for Yale against the Crimson, received an honorary doctorate from Harvard as did John F. Kennedy from Yale. "It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds," observed Kennedy, who faced the Bulldogs in sailing, swimming and football. "A Harvard education and a Yale degree."